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Toomey: 'We have never once turned off our phones'

WASHINGTON — Facing a barrage of criticism over whether he is listening to his constituents, Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) on Thursday held a "tele-town hall" and defended his office's accessibility.

"We have never once turned off our phones," he said, rebutting a complaint by activists and other critics in recent weeks.

The comment came amid a 45-minute call, in which Toomey answered 10 questions on a range of subjects, including the Affordable Care Act and some of President Trump's most contentious early moves. Most pertained to the issues that have motivated protesters to demonstrate regularly outside his offices, jam his phone lines with calls, and demand that he hold an in-person town hall.

Toomey announced the 2 p.m. event on Facebook about 90 minutes before it began. Listeners were invited to submit questions by phone or online, and the senator's staff said nearly 16,000 participated. Toomey aides chose the questions. He said it was the 48th such event in his tenure.

Tele-town halls — essentially massive conference calls — have become a popular outlet for many members of Congress as anti-Trump activists agitate for public meetings where they can confront lawmakers and question them face-to-face. Many legislators are wary of the made-for-TV scenes that have greeted some Republicans since the start of Trump's term.

Toomey addressed that issue and others:

• On his own accessibility: Toomey preemptively touched on the complaint that his phone lines have been so jammed, constituents can't get through. He said he had only a handful of staff to handle tens of thousands of calls flying in -- some of which, he said, come from concerned Pennsylvanians, while others are "organized, orchestrated efforts to block our phone systems."

One Facebook user challenged Toomey, saying the teleconference was "not good enough" and allowed the senator to answer prescreened questions without confrontation.

"I disagree -- I am in Washington five days a week most weeks," Toomey said, explaining his schedule limited his time for events in Pennsylvania. "I think this is a very useful way to hear from a lot of people, and there are tens of thousands of people who can listen in."

• On Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: Of Trump's cabinet picks, DeVos inspired perhaps the most activism, including a concerted effort to press Toomey to oppose her. He voted in favor of her nomination and told a Bucks County critic that he supports her push for charter schools and school choice.

"She has spent decades of her life actively engaged in and supporting a cause that I feel strongly about and actually agree with," Toomey said. "If you're a low-income family, if you're a working-class family, if you're a poor family, you don't have the luxury of being able to pick the community you live in" or pay for private school, he said.

He said those families should have the same choices as wealthy families who can afford to move or pay for private school. He added that competition "will elevate everybody's game."

• On the Affordable Care Act: Toomey reiterated his long-held belief that Obamacare is "in free fall" and doomed. He still favors repeal, but said Republicans would not "pull the rug out on anyone." He envisioned a transition period of "at least two or three years" as Republican lawmakers roll out a new plan.

Pressed for specifics, Toomey said that Republicans still have to agree on the details but that some provisions have gained steam, including: allowing individuals who buy health insurance to deduct the cost on their tax returns; allowing competition across state lines; changing the way people with chronic conditions are covered; and making legal changes to cut down on health-care lawsuits.

• On Russian aggression: "I am disappointed that President Trump hasn't been more openly critical of Vladimir Putin," Toomey said.

But he said he was reassured that Trump's defense secretary, Jim Mattis, and secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, "fully understand the nature of the threat." And Toomey said he would favor more sanctions on Russia, calling Putin "a dangerous man."

He said he favors a Senate intelligence committee investigation into whether Russia interfered in the November election.

As for Michael Flynn, Trump's national security adviser who was forced out this week because of his earlier conversations with Russian officials, Toomey said Flynn had to go because he lied to Vice President Pence about his conversations with a Russian ambassador. Toomey also again raised questions about why U.S. investigators taped a call involving Flynn and the ambassador, and raised concerns about those details being leaked to the media.

Even though intelligence agencies routinely monitor foreign agents, Toomey said, there are laws he supports against spying on Americans.

• On Trump's immigration restrictions: Toomey said Trump's executive action limiting  immigration for refugees and from seven countries was "significantly flawed" and not "rolled out properly." He said it should not have included valid green card holders or people who had assisted the U.S. military.

But he said he supported the overall goal: "The fundamental idea that we need a tougher mechanism for vetting people that come from failed states where we have known terrorist activity ... I agree with that," Toomey said.

• On 'sanctuary cities': Toomey continued his criticism of cities, including Philadelphia, where local police have been ordered not to cooperate with federal immigration authorities when it comes to holding people suspected of immigration violations.

Toomey stressed that he has a bill designed to inoculate cities from any legal liability if they  hold people for deportation and it turns out to be an improper detention, and to  punish cities that refuse to cooperate by stripping them of some federal funding.